Starlink Secures FCC Approval For Rare Rocket Test In Texas

The Starship SN9 prototype during a hot-fire test in January 2021. Image: SpaceX

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Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) has secured approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test a Starlink user terminal on an upcoming rocket test. The terminal, which Starlink users use to communicate with the satellites orbiting in Low Earth Orbit (LEO), has already been mounted on the prototype of SpaceX's Mars test rocket dubbed Starship. The company had applied for the FCC approval earlier this month, and the grant comes as SpaceX is on its way to conduct its fifth Starship test flight.

SpaceX Granted Permission To Test Starlink On Starship SN15 Just As Prototype Gears Up For Crucial Test Flight

Before today's approval, pictures of a Starlink dish mounted on SpaceX's latest Starship test prototype started making rounds on Twitter. They clearly revealed the white circular user terminal fixed on SN15. This prototype is SpaceX's most advanced test article for the launch vehicle platform to date. Its launch, which might take place later this week, according to the company's chief, Mr. Elon Musk, will prove crucial in validating the platform's design.

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While during the four tests that it conducted so far, SpaceX has managed to successfully launch, flip, reignite the engines and land its prototypes, the company is yet to recover a test article successfully. The closest it came to a successful recovery was with the SN10 rocket, which exploded on the launch pad as a hard landing damaged its tanks.

As far as Starlink goes, SpaceX intends to use the Starlink terminal to communicate with orbiting satellites. According to the company's application narrative for the test:

SpaceX’s user terminal will communicate only with those SpaceX satellites that are
visible on the horizon above a minimum elevation angle of 25 degrees. The proposed flat
phased array user terminal will track SpaceX’s NGSO satellites passing within its field of view. As the terminal steers the transmitting beam, it automatically changes the power to maintain a constant level at the receiving antenna of its target satellite, compensating for variations in antenna gain and path loss associated with the steering angle.

A close-up of what appears to be a Starlink user terminal installed on the Starship SN15 prototype as it awaits its fate on the launch pad. Image Credit: Carter Goode

The bulk of problems with Starship testing so far have related to the rocket's propulsion system. This has caused its Raptor engines to often deviate from the desired thrust levels for landing or, as was the case with the first prototype, caused the internal component of the engine to melt due to low fuel pressure. This was evidenced by the green flames, which indicated that liquid oxygen had started to melt it. The Raptor uses Methane for fuel and liquid oxygen to ignite the Methane to generate thrust.

Reports from Boca Chica, Texas, where SpaceX is testing Starship, have confirmed that the company conducted a static fire for SN15 on Monday. This checks the rocket's engines and fuel systems to ensure there are no problems before a flight. Since SN15 and its engines contain several upgrades over their predecessor, the test was important for SpaceX to validate if the changes it made would end up being flight-worthy.

Should SpaceX successfully launch and land SN15, its focus will shift towards Starship's first-stage rocket booster. Dubbed Super Heavy, the flight variant of this rocket, will use 28 Raptor engines to generate roughly ten times the thrust that SpaceX's currently operational Falcon 9 is capable of according to specifications listed on the company's website.

Once operational, Starship will replace the Falcon 9 and SpaceX's Dragon capsules to become an all-in-one launch vehicle system. The company plans to use this system to take humans to the Moon, launch satellites, interplanetary missions, and point-to-point missions on Earth.

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